Friday, March 12, 2010

Phantom Stranger #7

Phantom Stranger #7 (On Sale: March 12, 1970) has a great cover by Neal Adams. this is the second issue to use the Phantom Stranger as a passive part of the background, as a force maybe not controlling events, but watching them unfold.

This issue features "The Curse" by Robert Kanigher and Jim Aparo and the real news here is that in Jim Aparo the Phantom Stranger has found a champion, someone who will stay with the character as it develops and someone who as their own talent is exploding pushed that dynamic and exciting energy into the character. It is the perfect match. On one hand you have a character DC is trying to revive but having some conflicting issues on what direction the revived character should take, given the ever-changing environment of comics in 1970 and on the other you have an artist coming into his own, a burgeoning talent looking for an outlet in which to mature. A match made in heaven or wherever the Phantom Stranger comes from.

Since we still have Robert Kanigher we still have the loopy "teenagers" and Tala and multiple stories of no consequence and Dr. Thirteen saying the same lame dialog over and over. But, as it did with Neal Adams' artwork a few issues ago, it all goes down much better with Jim Aparo's wonderful dark and gloomy illustrations.

Jim Aparo's Phantom Stranger has that sort of domino mask like another character called the Phantom which Aparo was known to draw from time to time, but his pages and panels are much darker than the work he did on that other Phantom. His panels here are dense and full of detail and loaded with dark and unsettling corners where god knows what may be lurking. There is a rich yet claustrophobic feeling to the artwork in this book, very much at odds with the open feeling you get from his Aquaman pages of the same time. His visual voice fully secured in Aparo's hands, this is the point where the Phantom Stranger finally took root.

So the "teenagers" have come to the town of Seaview in search of Vulcan's Castle, invited by Vanessa Vulcan a chick they met at a folk festival. No one will rent them a boat but they find one unattended and decide to avail themselves of its services. It has a strange black sail, but that doesn't deter them. However, once at sea the sail turns into Tala and deserts them and the sea turns into a giant whirlpool and sucks them down to their deaths. Oh, so we hoped! The Phantom Stranger shows up and plays with Tala for a bit then saves the kids. When they get back to the surface, Dr. Thirteen arrives in time to call the Stranger a "stage charlatan" and to let us know that he is also going to Vulcan's Castle because billionaire Andrew Vulcan has hired him to break a curse which torments his daughter.

They all arrive at the castle in time to meet Vulcan, his gardener Thomas and to see Tala lure Vanessa off one of the ramparts to the peaceful "embrace" of the sea. The Stranger is there once again to save Vanessa and be called a "stunt man" by Dr. Thirteen. We learn that the supposed curse began when Vulcan bought the castle from old bankrupt Count Druga in Transylvania who said the curse would follow the castle across the sea. Dr. Thirteen then tells a story of a fake curse that he exposed, which includes the pretty cool scene from the cover of the tree branches attacking Dr. Thirteen himself. "The Curse of Shaft Seven" has to do with a cursed coal mine which was actually being haunted by the brother of a dead miner.

The Phantom Stranger then tells his story, "The Curse of the Sea Siren!" about a ship haunted by the figurehead on the ship (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Tala) and how the ship really was cursed. After those plot stretchers (and I give them such short shift because that is what they obviously are) we return to the real story and Vanessa and the curse that befalls anyone who loves her.

It started with Nicholas, son of Thomas the gardener we met earlier. Nicholas and Vanessa grew up together as children but as they grew older Vanessa became interested in other men and Nicholas wanted Vanessa to himself. One night Nicholas poisons himself and on his deathbed curses anyone who so much as kisses Vanessa (don't know why we had the Count Druga story if this is the cause of the curse!). Since then it has been one Lifetime Move of the Week romantic tragedy after another for Vanessa. Lee accidentally shot himself on their wedding day, Michael's boat was capsized at sea, William was thrown from his horse. Dr. Thirteen calls them all coincidences, but the Phantom Stranger sees something else.

He has Nicholas's body exhumed and though Dr. Thirteen proclaims him dead, the Stranger notes that he perspires quite a lot for a dead man. Thomas rushes in and commands Nicholas to awaken and to kill the Phantom Stranger for exposing their secret. Nicholas tries to kill Vanessa first, but one of the teenagers (where did they go during this story?) knocks her out of the way and Dr. Thirteen takes one in the arm. The Phantom Stranger explains to us that Thomas, in a fit of rage over Vulcan having so much and he having so little, placed his son into a hypnotic trance, simulating death, and would call him from his coffin to "off" Vanessa's beaus. But the power to do so was given to Thomas by none other than Tala.

Nicholas attacks the Stranger and falls to his death, Tala beats a hasty retreat, Dr. Thirteen says the whole thing was just coincidences and Nicolas was in too deep of a trance to do any of the killings and the Stranger says, "you be the judge of--The Curse!" We won't even attempt to go through all the holes in this one, just know that Aparo's artwork somehow makes all of this total nonsense work. Oh, and also know that it is reprinted in Showcase Presents Phantom Stranger Vol. 1 TPB.

Edited by Joe Orlando.

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